Reading – The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby

10 02 2008

People who read

Reading is done by a person with a book.

Reading on the internet is not reading it is consuming information that happens to be formatted as text. And, God bless Bartelby and Googlezon for attempting to make the library of Alexandria reappear bigger, better and less flammable in digital form with backups in data centers around the globe but I cannot read more than a few screens on a given subject online. Skimming is not reading and skimming is what the internet is for. Web surfing does not imply keeping a board in contact with the surface of the water but indicates flying from wave top to wave top often leaping from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean (the body of water containing all tech support documents) with no thought for the constraints of time and space.

Reading is not done with an audiobook. Listening to an audiobook should be called auditing and should never be referred to as reading. Auditing is fine for listening to murder mysteries and very light fiction but it is an insult to an important book to merely have it float around in the air around our heads and think that we are reading it. You might hear the high points but you won’t retain very much.

I was taught to read by my Aunt Louise who gave a teenaged boy Mencken, Salinger, Huxley’s Island and the New Yorker to read on a Summer’s visit in 1968. These gentle nudges in the right direction were the beginning of my college education and I feel the effects to this day.

The Nick Hornby of The Polysyllabic Spree is certainly not your fun but light handed novelist of About a Boy or High Fidelity (I mean these as books not movie star vehicles.) The book is about the books he bought and the books he actually read each month over the course of a year.

Hornby was writing a series of column for “The Believer” a UK literary publication but his collected work holds together as a sort of instruction manual for the reader who continues an education far past the time of study carrels and mortar boards.

The book’s form is a gimmick for tricking people into reading literary criticism in the same way that lyrics are often to make listeners pay attention to music. “Biographies should be a certain length…” he says, there should be a governmental board with the incontestable power to decide the maximum length of a certain person’s biography. This is a charming idea but, taken to its logical conclusion, there might be many multi volumes to the Neville Chamberlain history, writers might very well not be allowed to write so much as a paragraph on the lives of the several young ladies who intentionally forget their panties in search of publicity. While this latter decision might be just and fair and correct in every way, my ACLU/Greenpeace/PETA training makes me say that it smacks of censorship and must be stricken down.

He indicates that our reading has an appetite, it tells us when we need chocolate and when we need meat or a green salad. Couple this with his realization that he has forgotten everything he has read (which certainly rings true to me at age 55) and you have a sort of Omnivore’s Dilemma idea that books are not just consumed but also eliminated leaving us with the basis for some connective tissue but not the whole enchilada as we were lead to believe in the days when reading was an assignment rather than a choice.

He reads about sport. He wrestles with Wilkie Collins. He picks up stop smoking books and threatens to drop the habit simply to avoid having to read them again. All in all, his reading diary is worth a look even if only to find a comrade in arms in a world where bookstores are disappearing at an alarming rate and Steve Jobs is quoted as saying that no one will by Amazon’s Kindle digital book reader because no one read books anymore. (At this writing Amazon has been unable to meet demand for the Kindle since the initial run sold out in just a couple of days.)

A article about how to get more reading done includes the advice to read a book from start to finish without beginning another one. This seems more than a little OCD-like to me. I will refer to it as the Adrian Monk reading method if I do ever refer to it again which I doubt I will. This forsakes the life of the mind for the calisthenics of the mind. It must be employed by all who hope to survive the dreaded university “British Novel” course, but that is training and not real life. Assigned reading in school is preparation for the beginning of the life of the mind. That is the learning to walk before the learning to run while juggling, singing and talking on the cell that is real life.

Reading is one of my favorite pastimes. It is one I have in common with my wife and dearest friend, Terri. We share a small percentage of the same books, mostly the newest work of favorite writers. But each enjoys the benefit of the other’s accumulated knowledge. We respect each others’ minds and reading is the stuff that feeds our thoughts.

If the mind is like a muscle which atrophies with disuse, reading is its anabolic steroid.
Anyone who has bemoaned the movie version of a favorite book may agree that we are poorer when we let alternative media pretend to replace the real thing.

Here is a link to the interesting post about reading more books I mentioned above from In addition to recommending that you not read more than one book at a time they encourage you to take a book wherever you go (check) and to set aside an early morning reading period each day.




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